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Lukács tells an amusing anecdote in the “Reification” essay about a legendary critic in India who sets about investigating the myth he has heard about the world resting on the back of an elephant. “If this is so,” the thinker proposes, “then we must ask about that which the elephant stands upon!” When he is told that the elephant is balanced with dramatic precariousness on the back of a tortoise, the thinker is satisfied and his inquiry ends. If he is not, of course, he can always continue his search and inquire after that which the tortoise stands upon. He can search for a third miraculous animal.

The point being that the line of inquiry itself is rotten.

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In capitalist societies, the market is not an opportunity to be taken advantage of, it is an imperative. Its logic structures and impels society, and its fundamental tenets, though conventional, come to appear as expressions of natural laws. But capitalism itself is relatively novel: its genesis is most often traced to 17th century England, from where it has spread, over the past four centuries, to encompass the entire globe. Against the view that capitalism’s spread was inevitable, or even that it is latent in medieval commercial or traditional urban cultures, it can be argued that capitalist development amounts to a historical accident, an unintended consequence of pre-capitalist England’s internal arrangement. The argument that capitalism should not be conflated with commerce or even bourgeois benefits immensely from the juxtaposition of the case of England and the case of France. The nascent capitalist dynamics of English society reveal themselves to be quite different from those of absolutist France, and the archetypal “Bourgeois Revolution,” the French, shows itself to not be operating according to capitalist logic as those of its own absolutist way of doing things.

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The conflation of capitalism with urban markets, trade, and commerce, and capitalists with burghers, we saw, springs from an assumption that capitalist social relations are somehow natural — they are outside of history, not contingent, and, unless there are sufficient restraints, would be the default manner of organizing any society any where. This assumption, besides being an irrational, faith-inflected posit of a natural law that is nowhere and everywhere at once, is glaringly contradicted by the historical record. Our Burghers of Calais were not proto-capitalists; they were were something else entirely. Their particular circumstance and the way they oriented themselves to the world, their fellows, and their profession did not differ from capitalism only in scale, but in quality.

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I’ve always harbored the prejudiced view that even though America is the very seat of global capitalism, its ‘dynamic’ society offers the poor more of a chance to improve their lot than European countries where social class was more solidified. As it turns out, this is very much untrue for the wide swath of developed capitalist nations–all except Britain have a greater chance of social mobility than the United States. But still the old myths about American being the Land of Opportunity, the Great Meritocracy, persist, perhaps because they have had certain appeal to people coldly evaluating their circumstances, even though they are contradicted by empirical fact. But their untruth plays an important ideological role. It causes people to endorse an economic system that impoverishes them, acting in a way analogous to the horror-tales of ‘Socialist Medicine’: they believe that while it is not exactly ideal here it is way better than anywhere else.

While the myth of America as a Land of Opportunity lead economists to suggest that a person’s inheritance accounted for as little as 20% of their wealth, or ‘earnings advantage’, the new measurements show that it accounts for somewhere between 40-60%, and maybe even as much as 65%. This of course is rather startling, and was even covered in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times (May 13, 2005 and Nov 14 2002, respectively). When one’s inherited position accounts for so much, your parents’ social position not only gives you an advantage or disadvantage, it plays a determining role in your place in society–and that is to say nothing of your grandparents and great-grandparents. As long as America is perceived as a socially mobile society, and not one whose recent trends suggest an even further entrenchment of social class, the realities of class will remain on the periphery of consciousness. It’s time we disabused ourselves of our myths.

One of the mainstay whipping boys of Marxist explanations of history is the bourgeoisie: a class of persons invoked both to serve as foil to the proletariat and to establish a target against which to struggle. While there are some benefits to this approach–it is simple, it carries the weight of tradition, it has a certain theoretical elegance–it does not properly convey the forces at play in the historical development of capitalism. And so, it is not much use in thinking through possible avenues beyond capitalism. Obviously, this is unacceptable. A correct understanding of history, one that drives a wedge between capitalist and bourgeois is necessary. But for that you must get a glimpse of the broader situation of pre-capitalist Europe and how it is portrayed in both mainstream and radical accounts. I hope, through this series of posts, to offer just that.

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